By MITCH LIES
Cover crops were center stage at the 2013 Farm Progress Show Aug. 27 – 29 in Decatur, IL. Prominent among them was annual ryegrass.
The emphasis on cover crops mirrors the skyrocketing interest in annual ryegrass and other cover crops by Midwest growers in recent years.
Agricultural consultant Mike Plumer, a retired University of Illinois Extension agent who has worked with cover crops for three decades, estimated that cover crop usage has grown 400 percent in the last two years, alone.
At the 2013 Farm Progress Show, cover crops for the first time were featured in a crop demonstration plot. The exhibit provided growers a first-hand look at different cover crops, like millet, radish, crimson clover, cereal rye, buckwheat, rapeseed, turnips, oats, winter peas and annual ryegrass.
Annual ryegrass has become one of the most well known cover crops in the past 15 years, Plumer said. He estimates that annual ryegrass represents 25 percent of the total cover crop usage in the Midwest.
“My yields have been climbing every year, particularly after the third year,” said Rich Recker, a Mt. Pleasant, Mich., grower who has used cover crops for six years. “The third year is the charm.”
A survey of 750 growers conducted last fall by the Conservation Technology Information Center and the USDA North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program showed that corn planted after cover crops had a 9.6 percent increase in yield, compared to corn planted next to it that didn’t follow a cover crop.
Soybean yields increased 11.6 percent following cover crops.
In the hardest hit drought areas of the Corn Belt, yield differences were even greater, according to the survey, with an 11 percent increase in corn yields and a 14.3 percent increase in soybean yields following cover crops.
The survey showed a 350 percent jump in the total acreage in cover crops between 2008 and 2012.
Joe Rothermel, of Champaign County, Ill., said he’s seen improved soil health since he started using annual ryegrass as a cover crop four years ago. The improved soil health has helped get water to plants, he said, particularly in drought years.
“I think we’ve got to do everything we can to get water into the ground, and keep it there,” Rothermel said.
Rothermel also said he’s getting weed control from the cover crop, a side benefit he never expected when he started using annual ryegrass.
“We don’t have near the marestail pressure,” he said.
Macon,IL., grower Paul Butler said he, too, has been getting weed-control from his annual ryegrass cover crop. He’s also been happy with the ryegrass’s ability to break up compaction.
“When we have compaction issues, there is not a lot I can do,” he said. “The radish and the ryegrass seem to be doing a good job with that.”
Butler said he flies on the annual ryegrass seed before corn is harvested. Doing so gives the annual ryegrass added time to establish before a killing frost.
John Gullidge, a farmer from Lewisville, Ill., said annual ryegrass is helping tie up nutrients in what he describes as poor soil and put them into a form the next crop can use.
“I’m trying to make the best of what I have with what I can,” he said.
Crop consultant Mark Mellbye, a former Oregon State University Extension agent, has been working with Oregon ryegrass seed growers on developing the Midwest cover crop market since the effort began in 1996.
Overall usage of annual ryegrass in the Midwest has increased from a few thousand pounds in the late 1990s, to maybe 5 million pounds three or four years ago, Mellbye said, and up to 15 or 20 million pounds this year.
The interest in annual ryegrass, Mellbye added, has skyrocketed just between last year and this year.